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Why Your Mental Health Makes the Grass Seem Greener in the Past

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“Grass is Greener Syndrome” is a really tough and debilitating cycle for many people who struggle with this issue. It can make people feel that they are never fully settled in life, repeatedly experiencing urges to find the better thing they are missing out on, leading to a pattern of changing relationships, careers, where to live or otherwise. While there can be a period of satisfaction and gratification on the heels of the most recent change, these feelings tend to wear off as time passes, thus restarting the cycle.

There is a lot to say and understand about “Grass is Greener Syndrome” (GIGS), more than can be discussed in one article. It is quite a bit more complicated than simply a general “commitment issue” (though one of the symptoms of GIGS is a struggle with certain types of commitment). If you wish to read more about my work with “Grass is Greener Syndrome,” you can find articles I’ve written (as well as a webinar I presented on this issue) around the internet.

In my therapy and coaching practice, “Grass is Greener Syndrome” and difficulty with settling down is an issue I’ve helped many people through over time. While the “grass is greener issue” is multifaceted, frequent nostalgic and euphoric memories are significant contributors to exacerbating this issue. These memories tend to create an idealization where nothing short of these perfect images is good enough.

It’s one thing to have memories. We all have them, and many memories can bring a variety of emotional responses along with them — happy, sad, joyful, mournful, etc. However, with GIGS, the memories many people hold can create a deep sense of longing and craving. Some may think back to their childhood and recall images that bring a sense of deep nostalgia, and a yearning to return to this time of life, in some way. The prevalent feeling becomes: “Nothing will feel as good as this time in my life felt.” Or, with a relationship partner, there may be an imagined idea of the perfect relationship, therefore making anything that doesn’t fully fit this picture not the right relationship for you.

Perfect Images, Perfect Feelings

Sticking with the past for a moment, what ends up happening in this craving to return to an earlier time is a wish to either relive a feeling from the past, or to actually recreate the past environment in the present. The hope is that it will bring the exact level of emotional happiness and euphoria that the imagined feeling holds (the same is true for relationships, but here it’s the anticipated emotion of what the perfect relationship would feel like that is sought).

This can be played out in a variety of ways in one’s present life, but the most recognizable GIGS response is the feeling that what you have now isn’t good enough because you’re not experiencing the complete satisfaction that these euphoric images hold. It can leave people feeling unsatisfied in their present situation, even if the current situation actually may be a good one. It becomes very all-or-nothing in the GIGS cycle — I need to feel X way, or it’s not good enough.

While it’s more complicated than this (as GIGS is fueled by a deeper combination of issues that aren’t all discussed here), this struggle with euphoric memories/images and emotions is incredibly powerful. In GIGS, what often ends up happening is a quest for the environment that will bring these euphoric feelings — the perceived “right” relationship, career, place to live, social circle, etc. — as much as possible.

This is the shiny new, greenest grass, and it feels great for a period of time — like you finally have everything you’ve been looking for. But as the newness starts to wear off, the euphoric emotion starts to fade with it (kind of like the end of the “honeymoon phase” of a relationship). This leads to the belief that the recent change wasn’t the “right” change, and it’s time to start looking again for that feeling — maybe the next one will be the one that sustains that feeling for the long haul (the honeymoon phase that never ends).

Fantasized Emotions

There is a problem with these euphoric and nostalgic images, however. And it can’t be overemphasized how powerful this actually is for people:

These images that we idealize actually washes away the real emotions of that time.

Simply said, we project emotions onto our past memories or future images. We see the images, and we lacquer them with a thick layer of euphoria (this happens unconsciously for various reasons, and could take a whole book to adequately discuss). In the process, we forget the difficult emotions that may have surrounded the earlier (or may surround the projected future) environment. In the present, we can’t literally connect with the past or future stresses, painful moments, the frustrations, the pressures of that time, the fatigue, and many other feelings that were likely around then, or may be around in the future images.

This is somewhat similar to having a relationship breakup where months later you start to remember all of the good things, and forget how painful and upsetting that time together actually was. Imagine this on a much larger scale. There may be good feelings in these past or future images, however, there’s more to the emotional picture than we tend to experience with GIGS. These projected emotions can drive people into incessant loops of trying to match an exaggerated feeling.

Stopping the Cycle

I’m sure many reading this are wondering what the solution is. GIGS is an issue I’ve seen many people work through. It is possible to stabilize the back and forth struggle that dominates this issue. However, this is something that is very tough to conquer on one’s own without help. Many people attempt to do this on their own before reaching out to me — for example, they may try to just pick one side of the coin and force themselves past the issue. But, eventually, the cravings of the neglected side end up taking hold again. GIGS is not an easy cycle to force yourself out of.

The mechanism that fuels “Grass is Greener Syndrome” is very persuasive and powerful, and it easily creates doubt and uncertainty about where you are in life when you’re stuck in the midst of the GIG process. It tends to be a vicious cycle that only reinforces itself, which makes it hard to break from within it. Simply said, don’t be afraid of seeking help. It is important to understand your own deeper struggle with this issue, and from there can work to end the cycle.

Nathan Feiles provides therapy and coaching online from his NYC-based practice.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Originally published: September 17, 2020
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